I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian. The journey that has brought me to this place in my life is rather an epoch in itself, and one that I do not have time to address particularly here. I bring it up to point out that my new found appreciation of the Mystery of the Theotokos in ancient Christianity is rather naive and I cannot claim to be any sort of expert. What I have discovered in regards to the Mysticism of Mary in Eastern Orthodoxy is rather profound. I hope that organizing it into some sort of coherent thought here will help me to better grasp what I am seeing. In the words of a spiritual mentor, I have no desire to convert anyone to anything. Just sharing a perspective.
To begin this discussion I suppose that we would need to discuss the tradition and history surrounding Mary in the West. In my opinion the views about Mary seem to take on polar extremes. The Roman Catholic Church exalts Mary to a place of near deity, while Protestants may have overcompensated by nearly forgetting her altogether. The Eastern Church seems to have found the middle ground here. (My bias is clear and admitted here). The Eastern tradition does not exalt Mary to the point of an additional member of the Godhead, but they at the same time do not marginalize a woman whom scriptures proclaim would be called blessed in the generations to come. A woman who was the vessel to bring the Incarnate God into the world. In the Eastern Church the blessed Virgin is not worshiped, but she is however honored (venerated) as the highest ideal of Christianity. She is the image of Theosis (unification with God). She models, more than all, the example of the Christian life in that she brought forth Christ (quite literally) through her humility and faith by the Holy Spirit. So must we all as Christians. In the Eastern Church, and consequently in the writings of the Fathers and Mothers of Christianity, Mary is the personification of the Christian life.
The idea of this young Jewish girl who, because of her purity and innocence, is chosen by the Holy Spirit as the mother of God is captivating. The narrative of the Gospels seems to give the ultimate contrast, the infinitely strong and masculine Deity juxtaposed against the frailty of childlike purity and femininity. The phrase that echos through the ages and ultimately brings forth salvation to the cosmos is a humble reply: “be it unto me as you have said.” It is the amen of all ages. How can we help but admit that this act of submission is integral to the Gospel narrative. Without the Virgin, there is no Virgin birth. Our dear Protestant friends may bemoan the veneration (honor) of Mary, but the weight of reality should be felt here. Mary’s role in the incarnation is immanently important. Further the protology of Genesis places a great emphasis on the Theotokos. It is the woman who is tempted, it us further the woman’s seed that is to “crush the head” of the serpent. If the deception of Eve brought forth death, then surely the faith of the New Eve brought forth Life. The role of the Mother of God cannot be marginalized, it is vital and important. This is why the most ancient of the Fathers, Mystics par excellent, saw the role of Mary as integral to the Gospel.
The role of Mary is more than practical however, it takes on a Mystical dimension even in the scriptural Canon. In the Revelation we see her image invoked:
12:1 Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. 2 Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.
3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4 His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born. 5 She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne. 6 Then the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there one thousand two hundred and sixty days.
The imagery and symbolism here invokes the image of the Theotokos – she who brought forth the “man child” to rule all nations. Further it unites this imagery with the New Jerusalem; the “mother of us all”.
Gal 4:26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27For it is written: “Rejoice, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you who have never travailed; because more are the children of the desolate woman, than of her who has a husband.”
It is in this way that Mary is the image of the New Jerusalem; the Church of the Living God and First Born:
Heb 12:22 You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, 24 to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.
In Eastern Christian mysticism, Mary then becomes the embodiment of God being “birthed” into the world through the worship and faith of the Church; which is His body. She is the Church, and the Church is her. She is the physical bringing forth the Divine. She is the material bringing forth the invisible Kingdom. She is the New Eve who gives birth to all who live in the Divine Life of Christ. This can be readily seen in the celebration of the Eucharist in the Eastern Churches. The alter becomes a womb in which the Eucharist – the body and blood of God – is birthed. Then the very “doors” become the birth canal by which the Presbyter (the spiritual midwife) brings forth the substance of the Divine to share with those who come hungry to the wedding supper of the Lamb. The echos of this mystical phenomena can be heard throughout the liturgy and teaching of the ancient Christians. In this way the dualism that separates men from God in their consciousness is healed in the union of heaven and earth. The woman who brings forth God heals the breach between the material and the immaterial; they become one in her Son. Because of this divine birth, the physical cosmos is healed. All things in heaven and earth are united to God through Christ, now in the eternal realm, in the course of time for we finite, time-bound creatures. The mystery of Mary teaches that to us and its lesson resounds in the ages.
The Christian mysticism of Mary then calls to the archetypal unctions in mankind. She corresponds to “mother nature” of so much mystical lore. She is Mother Earth, that brings us forth from dust and then nurses us in her bosom until we are mature enough to stand before God. She loves and pities us in our weakness. She sees within us the spark of the divine and calls us to sweet fellowship. Who has looked into the heavens upon a starry night and not felt the warm arms of a tender mother. Or looked upon the beauty of a sunrise and not felt compelled to reach toward the Light. The mystery of Mary, the Theotokos, calls to every man in every corner of the globe.
The Mysticism of Mary then is all of these things, and perhaps much more. She is the New Eve, the Mother of God, the lowly virgin girl who says with unwavering faith “be it unto me as you have said”; she is all of these things. In Eastern Christian mysticism the Saints are not laying dormant in the dust, but they are in heaven worshiping and praying for their brethren as we finish our course here below. They are the “great cloud of witnesses” that we read of in Hebrews, interceding for us in the heavens; guiding, instructing and teaching. Among them there is no greater than the Virgin. “More honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim..” Our Mother who said to the Angel Gabriel in faith “be it unto me according to thy word.” She brought forth the fruit of Life:
And Mary said:“My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. Luke 1:46-48